SPONSORED BY: ASC Master Class
This episode of the American Cinematographer Podcast welcomes cinematographer and ASC member Michael M. Pessah to talk about the remarkable, genre-defying and genre-defining cinematography of Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien, shot by Derek Vanlint, CSC. We’ll touch on the film’s origins, Vanlint’s collaboration with Scott (which predates the film), pick out some of our favorite scenes, and ponder what might’ve been, as Alien is one of only two major feature credits to the cinematographer’s name, the other being 1981’s Dragonslayer, directed by Matthew Robbins.
Vanlint passed away in 2010 at the age of 77.
AC stories mentioned in this episode:
Alien and Its Photographic Challenges by Derek Vanlint, CSC
The Filming of Alien by Ridley Scott
Filming 2001: A Space Odyssey (photographed by Geoffrey Unsworth, BSC and John Alcott, BSC)
Unearthly Terrors: Event Horizon (photographed by Adrian Biddle, BSC)
ABOUT THE GUEST
Michael M. Pessah, ASC is known for his award-winning work in both scripted and documentary filmmaking, and for numerous music videos and commercials. He’s also on the faculty at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, and serves on the National Film Preservation Board at the Library of Congress.
Iain Marcks: So we’re here to talk about the filming and aesthetics of Alien, and we have two things we want to talk about. The first is how Alien subverted the conventional look of the science fiction film and became the first post-modernist science fiction movie, and then it’s going to be also an appreciation of Derek Vanlint, the DP who filmed Alien only to retire from shooting features soon afterwards. So let’s just start at the beginning: you called Alien the first post-modernist science fiction movie, but what would you consider to be a modernist science fiction film, from the era that we're talking about?
Michael Pessah, ASC: If you’ll humor me, one of the best sort of doorways to understand Alien one has to go back 20, 30, 40 years. You know, I’ve said it more than once. Every time you make a film in a genre, you’re having a conversation with the films in that genre that have preceded it. And I think Alien is such a wonderful case study of how a film that's ostensibly a genre film is having this like really, really complex conversation with the movies in the genre that preceded it. And if you go way back, the early science fiction films, like say, for example, Flash Gordon, or Forbidden Planet, they were kind of pulpy films, they were often B-movies, they were not high concept films. There were science fiction films, like Metropolis, right, that had very high artistic aspirations, right. But a lot of these were sort of comic book films or B-movies. And that really got turned on its ear when Stanley Kubrick made 2001: A Space Odyssey. A lot of the sort of gadgets and gizmos that felt like they were ordered from the back of a comic book, were rendered in this beautiful, modernist aesthetic. And if you look at 2001, it owes as much to Le Corbusier, or to [Johnson] or any of the great modernist architects as it does to the science fiction films that preceded it. And what 2001 did that was really so interesting that I think so many people responded to is, it created an optimistic view of the future, even though it’s a very dark film, because the visual language of the film is so organized. And if you look at the relatively deep depth of field, the lack of film grain, the gliding camera movements, the controlled color palette, even as the film ends with its impossibly complex, or even dark ending, you know, you’re in a perfectly organized white bedroom. And, you know, almost all color has been removed from the frame. And that became the look and the kind of face of science fiction for quite a bit of time afterwards. Few films changed the visual language of a genre as quickly and as dramatically as 2001 did. And so instead of these really sort of campy spaceships flying around, you really had something that looked like it belonged to the Museum of Modern Art.
Iain Marcks: You had a ballet.
Michael Pessah: Absolutely, then the music was a part of it, right? Instead of using a sort of amped up musical score, Kubrick was borrowing from the best of modernist and classical music, Strauss, Ligeti. And that became part of the expectation of what a science fiction film might be, you look at THX-1138, and some of the films afterwards and people were expecting a sort of modernist head trip when they saw a science fiction movie, which was a, I think, in some ways, a new expectation. And part of that was this very, very organized visual language that Kubrick and his cinematographer created.
Iain Marcks: Without trying to deconstruct that answer, I want to ask you, isn’t 2001 though, in taking Flash Gordon, or The Terror From Beyond Space or something like that, you know, Forbidden Planet, making a serious science fiction film, bridging the gap between low and high art? Isn’t that in and of itself, a postmodern technique?
Michael Pessah: Absolutely. And that was one of reasons why 2001 was transgressive. There were some very high-minded science fiction films that preceded it, but it took what was I think, to many people sort of a B-movie genre and it made it into something that would have been as happy playing on a museum wall as an art installation, as in a theater or in a multiplex. And that unto itself was a very, very revolutionary idea. And I think it’s one of the reasons why people still react to the film, and it’s so meaningful to so many people. Right?
Iain Marcks: So this kicked off a trend in science fiction films, you’re talking about, like a philosophical trend, or more of like an aesthetic.
Michael Pessah: It’s both, you know, the two come hand in hand. And that’s, that’s one of the fun things about cinematography is, you know, the visuals are informed by the themes, and vice versa. So, after 2001, you had films like THX-1138, which I mentioned, that weren’t plot-driven, right? They were thematically driven, that aimed to be films that you would see with some friends, and after getting out of the theater, sit around a coffee shop and discuss for hours afterwards. And that wasn’t the goal of for example, Flash Gordon, or Forbidden Planet. I think if you look at the Outer Limits, and if you look at Star Trek or the Twilight Zone, those creators aim for hinted to try to create an experience like that in sort of a backdoor way. But after 2001, the floodgates were sort of open for the science fiction movie to really be the movie that put philosophical ideas kind of front and center, you know, that was in the air at the time, right? Stranger in a Strange Land was a very popular book in the 1960s. You know, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End—
Iain Marcks: And there was also a lot happening at the time with audiences, right, who were now ready, intellectually, philosophically, emotionally to receive this kind of material.
Michael Pessah: Absolutely. You know, one of the amazing things that happened in the late 1960s, which is a lot of the ideas that were in the bloodstream of the foreign cinema, right, that was the arthouse cinema at the time by filmmakers like Bergman, or Tarkovsky, Buñuel, or Fellini, were jumping over into Hollywood mainstream cinema. And I think you could see that playing out in all the genres, but certainly in science fiction. The popularity of arthouse cinema in the 1960s also informed the expectations of what someone might want to get out of seeing a movie. And so you had audiences that were starting to turn out to Hollywood movies by filmmakers that were also informed by the same arthouse masterpieces. And the audience was there, people were expecting more than just a ride, when they went out to the movies, they were expecting it to be something that would sort of open their mind up or create some type of intellectual ferment, or at the very least give them some really, really interesting things to talk about at dinner afterwards. It wasn’t just that filmmakers were trying to push the envelope, what people were expecting from a night out of the movies had changed. They were expecting and responding to something that would challenge them.
Iain Marcks: You also had them turning out for movies like The Trip, which came out a year before 2001.
Michael Pessah: Yeah, you had all the psychedelic Corman films. And you even our audience is turning out for a film like Two-Lane Blacktop, which is ostensibly sort of a road movie, but ends in one of the trickiest endings of all time. And the film’s a classic because of that. So you had all of these classic Hollywood genres, like the heist movie, like the road movie, like the science fiction movie, that were suddenly being reimagined and sort of recontextualized in this psychedelic way.
Iain Marcks: So we’re now at the end of the ’70s. And Alien comes along, and it’s another milestone. What is it that it does different than anything that came before it?
Michael Pessah: What’s uncanny about Alien is, it begins in sort of this homage to the science fiction films that preceded it, particularly 2001. You have this gliding camera movement, this modernist sort of sleep area, all flat-lit, very controlled color palette, a kind of classical theme playing in the background. And the opening of Alien looks like an outtake from 2001. What that really was was one of the greatest pieces of cinematographic misdirection. Ever. You have Derek Vanlint and Ridley Scott, playing on the audience’s expectations of what a sort of heady, high-minded, modernist science fiction film was supposed to look like. But what that opening really is, is it’s kind of a head fake. And that modernist architecture and aesthetic is piece by piece taken apart and replaced by something that’s much more complex, and much thornier. And so by the very end, you’re being confronted with spinning aircraft landing lights, steam, slime, lens flares, shaky, handheld camera — the complete antithesis of the visual language of 2001. And so, you know, Ridley Scott, of course, you know, is a student of cinema and a student of art. He very, very much knew, I think what he was doing, the way he was setting up Alien that way.
Iain Marcks: It’s interesting that you mentioned Ridley Scott in terms of his intentionality, because I get the opposite impression from him. We have the account of the filming of Alien on the ASC website, by Vanlint himself, and also with Ridley Scott, it seems to me that he was trying to solve a puzzle.
Michael Pessah: Well, that’s always the magic of filmmaking, the magic of cinematography, you know, you make all sorts of last minute decisions and you look back on them and they seem like they’re inevitable, and how could you have ever made the movie any other way? And the other thing I’d say is that before a certain time, filmmakers will be circumspect about trying to seem kind of too intellectual about about their intentions. And you know, so many classic films in the 30s, 40s, 50s with really interesting transgressive lighting styles, and the cinematographers would often talk about them like they were just technicians. But of course we weren’t and you know, many of the private conversations, they were very aware of what they were doing. So as long as I think you have to take, you know, peoples’ personal accounts of things with a grain of salt, you look at what Derek Vanlint said about Alien, you know, which is a masterpiece. And I think it’s a quote at the end of the ASC interview with him, he said, it was very British, something along the lines of, “I was quite pleased with the results.” And I think it’s understandable people don’t want to tip their hands in terms of their their artistic inclinations. And I think you look at a work of art, you know, whether it’s a painting or literature and there’s meaning there that's even beyond what the preconceptions of the of the author was.
Iain Marcks: And it’s interesting to see that meaning emerge through like a judicious application of technique.
Michael Pessah: Absolutely. And then I’ll circle back. We’re kind of talking out of order here. But another really interesting thing about Alien is that it’s such a great example of how filmmaking by committee can actually really work well. And you know, that’s always sort of one of the worst kind of slights against studio filmmaking, is it’s this sort of death of 1000 cuts. And the vision of the film gets diluted, and you know, too many chefs in the kitchen. But if you look at the journey that Alien took, you have, you know, something that was originally, I believe, written by Dan O’Bannon, who had made a science-fiction film called Dark Star, which is very fun to take a look back on.
Iain Marcks: That was directed by John Carpenter, that was his USC thesis project, right?
Michael Pessah: That's right. And for the the folks listening, go check out the trailer for Dark Star. It’s pretty amazing. It’s definitely worth checking out. It sort of shows what happens if you try to make this a heavy type of science fiction film, but on a pretty limited budget.
Iain Marcks: I have two words for you: beach ball.
Michael Pessah: Right? And there’s just a great monologue about surfing there as well. I’m trying to remember I think, is there an astronaut surfing and space in that?
Iain Marcks: Maybe at the end, but there’s definitely that monologue in the middle of the film with I don’t remember which character it is, I think I might actually even be O’Bannon. But he’s got his head stuck through the cupola of the ship. Yeah, he’s just kind of tripping on space.
Michael Pessah: And someone is definitely attacked by a giant beach ball there, as well. The I think the rules of gravity in that film are highly selective, but it’s a really fun movie to take a look at. And I think again, it just is just another sort of data point about what was in the air and how quickly, like science fiction was changing. And you look at from Dark Star, O'Bannon writes a script that I believe is called Star Beast that then finds its way into the hands of Walter Hill. And Walter Hill makes some script changes. My understanding is, and I could be wrong, but I believe Walter Hill added the character of the android. And then it was also Walter Hill that suggested that the protagonist be female.
Iain Marcks: Right it was an all-male crew at first. And then he added the Lambert and Ripley characters. And it was Dan O'Bannon’s script, it first went to Ronald Shusett, who contributed a draft and then the deal was made with Fox. Gordon Carroll came on board and then Carroll had a company called Brandywine in which Walter Hill and David Giler were partners. And that’s how Walter Hill came to the project. I’m actually taking this information from an excellent book by British film critic, David Thomson, it’s called The Alien Quartet and it came out a while ago, obviously, there were only four Alien films at the time, first published 1998. But it’s really just a fantastic look at all four Alien films from an intensely academic point of view. It’s a great visual analysis.
Michael Pessah: I haven’t read that. And I‘d love to check that one out.
Iain Marcks: But back to what you were saying, though, is Walter Hill got the script, and then—
Michael Pessah: Eventually, it finds its way into the hands of Ridley Scott, who, of course, you know, puts his own stamp on it. And each step along the way, the project instead of getting diluted and compromised, gets sort of distilled. And it just goes to show how sort of unpredictable art is, you know, a process that could totally butcher and ruin one movie, in this case, you know, couldn’t have worked out better.
Iain Marcks: Yeah, it was being honed. Thomson. He quoted [Hill] as saying, like when he writes a script, and I’m paraphrasing the quote, but when he writes a script, you know, he doesn’t care about where the characters necessarily came from, what they’re gonna do after the film is done. He just cares about what’s happening now on screen. If you read The Driver script, it has everything you need to understand the story and nothing to slow down, the reading of it, nothing to slow down the understanding of it.
Michael Pessah: And you can hear Walter Hill’s voice right in this sort of banter of the crew in the beginning, right, you know, they’re kind of griping about not getting their bonus. That sort of like vernacular was an interesting thing to see in a science fiction film. You don’t imagine the pilot in 2001, you know, right after having his very, very slow walk around the spaceship to get onto the intercom, and complain to how that he’s not getting his bonus that month. So you have this sort of process that should be messy, but it actually distills the film. And another thing that’s interesting is that it’s very difficult for us to hold this in our brains now. But Sigourney Weaver was not the obvious protagonist of the film when alien was released. In fact, I don't think, insanely enough, I don’t think she gets top billing in the film. And so that, again, is this sort of misdirection, the character that is not given the toppling of the film that isn’t the biggest star in the movie ends up sort of emerging as the protagonist, as everyone else gets sort of killed off. And so there’s always things that are sort of built into the DNA of Alien to kind of subvert our expectations of what it is we’re going to be presented with when we go into the movie theater.
Iain Marcks: What’s the pivot point? In your estimation, like when when things start coming apart?
Michael Pessah: Well, I think what’s wonderful about the film is how slowly it happens. You know, you almost don’t notice it. And from a cinematographic perspective, I almost imagine really Scott and Vanlint, you know, like sitting down somewhere, and just going through every way that they can sort of assault the audience in the theater. And so you have spinning lights, you have neon lights, you have steam, you have smoke, you have two different types of strobe lights, you have a shaky camera, even towards the end of the movie, the computer monitors, which had been very, very meticulously synced up with the shutter of the film camera at the beginning, they’re throwing the video monitors intentionally out of sync. You’re lighting actors with flame throwers. And so all of this sort of very, very organized cinematographic techniques that you saw being used in the 1960s are also being sort of replaced by these more visceral and kind of assaultive ways of lighting the actors.
Iain Marcks: What was the film stock that came out around that time? Because the technology at the time, allowed them more room, I guess, to to experiment with their palette.
Michael Pessah: Alien was shot on Kodak 5247, which is 100T film. So it’s not like there was this magical fast new film stock that came out that they can light with flame throwers. I think a lot of it was just filmmakers feeling the sort of agency and being empowered to try these crazy things out, shot anamorphic or shot on 100 speed film. And I do think a lot of the practical sources that they started having on set were partly because there was nowhere to hide the lights. And you had these anamorphic shots going down these long corridors. And really the only way to light things were using practical sources. If you can’t hide your light, you find a, you find a practical-type source that looks really cool that you can sort of incorporate as part of your visual design. And that’s what Scott and Vanlint did. But what happens as the movie progresses and it happens really just sort of drip drip, drip, a lot of the clean, soft white light that the film begins with begins to be slowly replaced with these more assaultive types of practical lighting, spinning sirens, strobes, flame throwers, neon lights, fluorescent lights, and, you know, and of course, the film level is brought way down as as the film progresses as well. But it really happens very methodically, right? Just layer after layer of this kind of, you know, glossy fantasyland patina is kind of pulled off of the film, and sort of what’s left underneath is this very, very gritty, skeleton with steam and lens flares, and goo everywhere.
Iain Marcks: There’s a moment though, where it goes from a ballet into I don’t know, like a meat grinder. And that’s, of course, the scene at the dinner table with Kane.
Michael Pessah: You know, that’s a really good point. I mean, that moment is when the movie turns around. It’s also where the movie is sort of begins to manifest being in a different genre or a different idiom than you think. And I think Ridley Scott even might have said he, you know, his goal is to make the Texas Chainsaw Massacre in space. And the goal of the film from that point on is really just sort of terrorize you.
Iain Marcks: Okay, we’ve been kind of talking around this point now, and I think we’ve set the scene for the next part of our conversation was just like an appreciation of Vanlint’s work and I’ve seen the film dozens of times, probably. But in preparation for our conversation today, I really sat down and took a good look at it and really watched it and asked myself, “well, what do I like about this film visually?” And so I mean, you go first, let’s just tell me like, what is it about Vanlint’s work in this particular film that just really grabs you? Give me an example.
Michael Pessah: Absolutely. There's, there’s a sequence in Alien, it’s maybe two-thirds of the way into the film. And you’re following the Ripley character, backpedaling with her. As she holds a flame thrower, there’s sirens spinning the background, and the camera is gliding on a dolly until she hears something frightening and hides for a second. And then a moment later, she has to get up and book it back the other way. And the camera follows her back handheld. In the midst of all that you have spinning lights, you’re inside a corridor where there’s no obvious place to hide movie lights, you have the blue ambience of the space ship that’s being contrasted by the red of the flame thrower, that’s on the opposite side of the color wheel. And when Sigourney Weaver takes a moment and tries to assess whether she goes forward, or whether she runs, it’s this sort of fight or flight moment. The camera finds her, and in the midst of all this, there’s some of the most exquisite portraiture you can imagine. And it conveys everything about who she is as a character, both her determination and her fear of what being thrust into this moment kind of means for her. At the same time, you’re doing all of these really transgressive visual techniques, you have spinning aircraft lights that are in the shot, you’re lighting a human with an actual flame, you have strobes that are synced with the shutter of the film camera, you have lens flares, which are still a pretty novel technique, even at this time. And you’re doing it all on 100 speed film, and edit to edit, there’s perfect visual consistency. It’s kind of this three-legged stool where you have incredibly thoughtful portraiture of the humans. And then you also have these avant garde techniques that are being flawlessly pulled off. At the same time, you have incredible technical control. And this is all by someone who is filming their first anamorphic movie, and their first real movie at all. Derek Vanlint was a commercial cinematographer before this, and I think maybe he had made some very, very independent films before this. But this was his first studio movie, what a debut. And so for all these new techniques to be used, and for have them all land so perfectly, and to have the soul of the characters and also everything the film is trying to do in terms of its you know, visual language for it all to come off so elegantly, is just extraordinary. I can’t think of very many first features that can hold a candle to it.
Iain Marcks: I picked the exact same sequence, I picked four moments that really jumped out at me, and this was sort of the one that really wowed me, starting right after Parker and Lambert are killed. And Ripley is like, she’s she's gonna blow the ship up. She’s doing it on her own right. And so she, she sets the self-destruct, and then she makes her way back to the shuttlecraft. And then the thing the image that really sticks out in my mind is right before she turns the corner to get into the shuttle, you have this like strobing effect, but it’s just like a big spotlight with a fan in front of it or a fan blade that just spinning. They really get into that shot after she sees the alien blocking her way. And it’s just like this moment of abject terror. It’s almost like she's paralyzed not just by the alien, but by the light, and then runs back tries to switch off the self-destruct. And then that’s when all the steam comes in, and the flame light and it’s just, I wrote down, “firing on all cylinders,” the light, the sound, the acting, the camera movements, everything, like you said, for a first time cinematographer just really phenomenal and a sophomore director...
Michael Pessah: Again, just imagine this sort of dinner table conversation where every way that they can kind of create this sort of intense experience for the audience. You know, they’re going for it. And what’s incredible is how all of it works. And it’s very rare when you see movies that have this amount of experimentation, where it all works so kind of seamlessly. I think a really great anecdote that just kind of shows you both sort of what their goals were and the kind of level of experimentation was, which is that in addition to using CSI strobe lights, or strobe lights that you’d see in like a discotheque, they were also using something called a scissor arc. Right? It’s two sides. You know, it’s two kind of metal bars, you kind of slap them together, and it creates a lightning bolt, it creates an arc effect, you know? And I’ll just say as a side note, I think that’s one of the really awesome things about cinematography is, you know, in cinematography, the technology is additive. You come up with a cool new way to make a strobe light and you use that, but you can still go into the kind of storage of the studio and get out this machine that was used in like the 1920s. And that’s what's really fun about cinematography is, you know, someone comes out with a gimbal, but that doesn’t mean you have to get rid of your dolly or your Steadicam as well. You know, you get to always add technology, but you got to keep the cool old stuff as well, when but, you know, I, they were using these scissor arcs to create some of the flashes. And I guess they made this this horrendous, kind of clanging sound. And really, Scott just decided to keep that sound in the movie. So if you hear this sort of crashing sound that goes along the lightning bolts, that’s literally the sound of the electricians kind of clapping the scissor arcs together, and I’m sure, you know, making things creatively unpleasant for the actors in front of the camera. And I think that just sort of speaks to the kind of aesthetic and I think, to the level of experimentation they had here.
Iain Marcks: Yeah, and you mentioned handheld, which was not frequent, but always seemed to occur in the right place.
Michael Pessah: They talked about how if the operator, you know, lost their balance, and they really lost the frame, how they’d use those moments. And handheld anamorphic in a science fiction film was not something that you saw very much of right for that. You know, you take a look at those beautiful Le Corbusier worlds that were created by Kubrick in 2001. I mean, a camera operator running backwards as fast as possible is not something that you would ever possibly imagine seeing in that film.
Iain Marcks: Right, or even just in the way that it enhances the mood. And I’m thinking about the scene where Ian Holmes’s character Ash, the android turns on on Ripley, after she discovers what, what the company has been up to, and they’re in the mess area. And he just throws her onto the floor, and the camera switches from a low angle looking up at Ash and then the operator, probably Scott, I’m guessing, pops up from maybe a medium shot into a close up and then back around his head, and then it goes straight back into a dark corner of the mess. Ash takes Ripley and drags her into this new area, and then boom, we’re in a different scene.
Michael Pessah: It becomes like this fight scene all of a sudden, and it’s very tense.
Iain Marcks: But it’s all one take.
Michael Pessah: It’s also just incredible visual design, right? It’s more of this kind of genre mashup, right, that’s the type of scene that you would see in again, you know, Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Iain Marcks: Which was not shot anamorphic.
Michael Pessah: The camera in Alien, I’m guessing was quite a bit heavier. But that‘s the type of fight scene that you didn’t typically see inside a spaceship, let alone inside this beautifully designed room with these hundreds and hundreds of little lights that were twinkling. You know, you listen to the sound design. And it‘s almost this sort of breathing sound effect. Everything about that room is there to create the sense of sort of order, and calm, then just the messiest fight in the world breaks out in the middle of it. That’s sort of a microcosm of I think, what they’re trying to do throughout the film, or they’re trying to kind of pull the rug out from under you, you know? What could be sort of more organized or calm than that computer room, as you carefully wait for the responses to kind of light up on the screen. And by the time it ends, I mean, you have just the biggest mess ever.
Iain Marcks: Well, yeah, you’re in the eating area. And instead of it being, you know, softly lit as it was, in those early scenes with the whole crew together and having dinner, there shadows everywhere. That center table, it’s covered in weapons, and most of the lights in the room are off. And now we’re in a horror movie.
Michael Pessah: Yeah. And there’s something very special. I mean, I think, you know, most cinematographers always appreciate seeing this, there’s something very special about movies that come back to the same location more than once, and then kind of recontextualize it. And what’s great about setting moving inside a spaceship is like, there’s not that many new places to go. And so, you know, for a thoughtful DP, it’s a fun thing to play with, and Alien is such a textbook of that, you know, you keep coming back to the same places over and over. But each time you’re there, they’ve been recontextualized. And the visuals reflect that, as the movie jumps from kind of a modernist aesthetic to a postmodernist aesthetic.
Iain Marcks: I have more that I could prompt you with. You know, one of the things that really stuck out to me this time: the use of insert shots. They punch in, they give you the information that you need, and they’re easy to understand. Even when Ripley is setting the self-destruct sequence on the ship, I have no idea what she’s doing, but through editing and the use of close ups and inserts, I understand, I can read the scene. And that’s throughout the movie, like when Tom Skerritt’s Dallas or Ripley are in the computer room talking to Mother, I have no idea how what they’re typing is translating to the screen, but I have all the information I need to understand like, how they communicate, and it’s all given to you visually.
Michael Pessah: Well, let me circle back on something you said. And I think it’s maybe something important to kind of think on, which is that you know, when I’m filming something, one of the words that I try to usually avoid having people use is like the words “quick insert,” because when you do that, what it does is it sort of puts those shots into like a different bucket than the shots that are considered more important or might have more to do with telling the story. And, you know, just almost as a thought exercise, say, you know, if you imagine, okay, “I’m going to go outside and get some B-roll.” Or if you say to yourself, “I’m going to go outside and shoot a beautiful exterior,” one sort of is more evocative than the other. And I think the inserts in Alien, I think, have the same sort of like dictum, behind it. None of those shots feel like quick inserts. And when I say quick, I‘m not talking about how much time it might have taken for them to actually film it, but just in terms of like the amount of thought that went into designing them. You know, I don’t want to spin out on a whole 'nother subject, but like the two are unrelated, right? And an audience member has no clue how much time was spent on any particular shot. It’s sort of not relevant to them, like some of the best shots take 10 seconds, and you know, some of the worst shots took days. It sort of doesn't make a difference. But what does make a difference is intent. And the intent of every insert in Alien, right, and the intent of every establishing shot right is like very, very clear. You never get the idea when you look at Alien that, you know, someone was sort of left behind to pick up the inserts, while the rest of the crew moved on to do something more important. You have a sense that every shot, you know whether it’s the shot of someone’s finger, like about to push a button, or a shot of a cat inside a cat carrier, they all have the same sort of gravity as the biggest, most epic shots. And I think that‘s what gives the film, part of its power is that you feel this sort of intent behind every frame. And I think part of the sort of pleasure of seeing a movie and what’s sort of wonderful and kind of mesmerizing about it is like you’re being guided by a sort of intelligence that’s not your own. And by sort of surrendering yourself to this sort of storytelling, right and allowing you them to kind of take you somewhere, you get to disappear in the narrative. And when you encounter even something as quick as a, an insert shot, right? Or an establishing shot, that you can sort of feel when that intelligence isn’t there, when that intent isn’t there, it kind of jumps you out of the movie. And if you look at Alien, what's really wonderful about it is that you never feel like any of the shots are sort of thrown away, right? Do you feel like every shot has been crafted. And I don’t think they had a ton of time to make the movie, I’m not talking about how much time it took for them to actually shoot it. But just in terms of the sort of intent to the kind of care that went into everything, you never felt that some shots were sort of higher importance than others. Every shot feels incredibly important in that movie.
Iain Marcks: Maybe I should amend my previous statement, when I said that I don’t think that it was entirely, like the film we got was entirely what Vanlint or Scott intended, I meant that more in a in a subtextual way, you know, obviously, they knew what they were doing. And they had set out to make this film with a clear plan. And it produced like such a such a classic of cinema, it begs the question, you know, like, what was it about the experience of just shooting features in general that turned Vanlint away from from that career path?
Michael Pessah: Well, let me circle back to something you mentioned, which is, you know, what their intent was, and how sort of carefully crafted the film is, you know, one of the things that’s interesting about Alien that I think makes it so resonant is that, you know, it’s this great example about how the visual design and the formal elements of something how something looks how something sounds, right, the look and feel something can elevate the text so much so that it becomes art. And the script for Alien is to my eye, you know, really excellent and transgressive, but the look and feel and the formal elements, like the crafting of it are such that it elevates the film into something more than the sum of its parts. And I think for cinematographers, that’s a very meaningful, a very powerful thing. Sometimes as a cinematographer, you’re told well, you know, the script sort of is what it is, and you’re there to sort of help put as nice of a patina on it as possible. But if you look at a film like Alien, and there’s many other you know, examples, the cinematography of Alien in the in the crafting of it, you know, transforms the film into into a whole 'nother thing. If that film was crafted in a less thoughtful way, you know, it would have been a completely completely different film, even if one word had never been changed. The formal elements of it, how something looks and sounds, are absolutely an essential part of the text of it.
Iain Marcks: Right, this is what you get when cinematography serves the story.
Michael Pessah: Absolutely. And you know, and cinematography is the building block of the story.
Iain Marcks: We’ve been going for a while here, and we’ve got a lot of good materials. To wrap up this this conversation. I don’t know how much there is to discuss about Vanlint’s career post-Alien, his feature career anyway, because it didn’t last very long. He has one other major credit to his name after this, and that’s 1981’s Dragonslayer.
Michael Pessah: And it’s really one of the great mysteries of cinematography, it’s one of the great filmmaking mysteries. Why didn’t Derek Vanlint go on to make more films? Putting Alien aside, if you look at Dragonslayer, that is an extraordinary work of cinematography. And if you jump ahead, and if you look at Game of Thrones or high fantasy films, or TV series that followed it, Dragonslayer was doing a lot of the same techniques 30 years earlier, If you’re a cinematographer, definitely don’t sleep on that one. It has the same level of control and innovation you saw in Alien, but it’s just in a different genre. And why Derek Vanlint didn’t make more than those two movies, I think we’ll all wonder. You know, he made those two films and he moved on to shoot and direct sometimes very, very high-end commercials, which was what his world was like before then. I even went and found his list of credits from his his agency. And you know, it mentioned the two features and then it’s a list of some of the best commercials and the best commercial directors of his time. You know, British Airways and Cadbury and Coca Cola and Ford General Motors, Guinness Honda, Jeep, you couldn’t ask for a more impressive commercial CV, but who amongst us wouldn’t have been interested in seeing what would have happened if him and Ridley Scott continued their collaboration together, what those next films would have looked like, and what it would have looked like if Derek Vanlint had gone on to make a movie with Steven Spielberg, or to film a movie for Sofia Coppola. And we’ll never know. So I don’t know why he made the choices he did. You know, if you read that American Cinematographer article, there’s some sort of hints there. He talks about how on commercials he could really put the lights right to the edge of the frame, and how [on Alien] he had to allow room for the actors to improvise, and how sometimes that was frustrating to him. And he talks about the stress of having to deal with the politics of a film studio. But the truth is, we’ll never really know. I think in some sense, it almost doesn’t matter. Who am I to say whether or not it’s a loss, but I would have been very, very curious to have seen what other films he would have made. I mean, if you look at those two films, they’re two of the most extraordinary examples of cinematography and really turning the genres in which they inhabit upside down. You know, we’ll just have to remember Derek Vanlint from the two movies he made. What an incredible accomplishment.
Iain Marcks: But in kind of a roundabout way, we do see the effects of Vanlint’s work in Alien and Dragonslayer on other films. And I’m thinking specifically of the work of the late Adrian Biddle, BSC, which is not to downplay his unique creativity, but he was Vanlint’s camera assistant on Alien, and went on to shoot the sequel, Aliens, after Vanlint turned Cameron down, as well as two really beautifully photographed fantasy films in the vein of Dragonslayer: The Princess Bride, another postmodern work, and Willow. And then he worked again with Ridley Scott 10 years after Alien, shooting Thelma & Louise.
Michael Pessah: And if you look at Event Horizon, which Adrian Biddle photographed, you know, that also has a lot of the DNA from Alien in it. And this goes back into what we’re talking about at the beginning, right the way, cinematography is always in conversation with the films that precede it in the genre. And so you have Alien, which sort of begat the look of Aliens, right, which went to Event Horizon and then even if you look at like video games like Doom, right, the video game Doom, right that that borrows a lot from the the visual language of Alien. And that’s not even getting into all the Alien sequels that followed it as well. And so it’s interesting to see how the kind of the visual DNA for Alien kind of spread out right and kind of tentacles outwards into all of these other films afterwards and beyond films, right, and into the world of video games and into the world of art. And now, when you make a film that’s in space that’s on a spaceship, the visual language of Alien is going to be something that you have to contend with.
American Cinematographer interviews cinematographers, directors and other filmmakers to take you behind the scenes on major studio movies, independent films and popular television series.Subscribe on iTunes